Monday, March 9, 2009

Who's Responsible for the Debts of the Deceased?

An interesting recent article in the New York Times cites a growing phenomenon of debt collectors contacting the surviving family members of the deceased and implying that they (the survivors) are personally liable for the unpaid debts of the deceased individual.

The article, called "You're Dead? That Won't Stop the Debt Collector" (you can find it here), states that the increase in debt collection efforts against the dead may stem from people's misunderstanding of their rights (and potential liabilities) under the law:
The banks need another bailout and countless homeowners cannot handle their mortgage payments, but one group is paying its bills: the dead.

Dozens of specially trained agents work on the third floor of DCM Services here, calling up the dear departed’s next of kin and kindly asking if they want to settle the balance on a credit card or bank loan, or perhaps make that final utility bill or cellphone payment. ...

Some of those who pay a dead relative’s debts are unaware they may have no legal obligation to do so.
As the article points out, questions about liability for the debts of a deceased person depends on state law.

In Virginia, it is important to remember -- as a preliminary matter -- that the estate of a deceased person (as opposed to the person's family members) is usually liable for his or her debts. For that reason, if you are the administrator or executor of an estate it is important to consult with an attorney about the estate administration process.

However, whereas the estate remains liable, the surviving spouse or other family members typically are not liable for the deceased person's debts in Virginia.

[Now, here comes the however to the however]: However, there are also statutory exceptions, in Virginia, for certain emergency medical expenses and other "necessaries" for which the spouse or other family member may be personally liable. [And, yes, there may be a however to the however to the however that could apply in certain situations.]

In the event that the New York Times trend continues and you face questions about whether you are liable for a deceased family member's debts, you should consult with an attorney to fully understand both your rights and obligations.